Powering the Nation Part 2: Building the Shannon Scheme through technical drawings
01 May 2018
Fig 2.3 - Siemens drawing 11139_P43 (Siemens Archive) closeup
Most material about the Shannon Scheme looks at it as an example of Irish national identity, particularly as a manifestation of early modernism in the Irish Free State. In Powering the Nation, I looked at the ways in which both official and unofficial images positioned the project within an existing discussion about Irish independence in the late 1920s.
However, this is not the full story of the Shannon Scheme – as well as the photographs taken by workers discussed in Part 1 of this article, a large number of technical drawings have survived from the architectural and engineering design process of the station, which show the project in a very different light.
Technical drawings created as tools to transmit ideas of form and space between professionals
These technical drawings were created as tools to transmit ideas of form and space between professionals, not easily read without specialised training, but they tell a story about the negotiations and decisions between engineers and clients, as the design of the power station was developed and finalised.
Embedded within the energetic atmosphere of late 1920s Germany, Siemens architects and engineers were experimenting with radical new ideas about building construction, working out ideas about how developing German technology could be reconciled with its cultural context. Groups as diverse as the Deutscher Werkbund and the Association for Electrical Technology (Verband der Elektrotechnik or VDE) grappled with ways of stripping historicised ornament from their buildings, and creating structures that expressed their construction in an honest manner.
This Bedürfnisbau, or industrial building, was championed by architects such as Peter Behrens and Walter Gropius, but also engineers such as Adolf Ludin, who wrote about the importance of creating airy, bright structures which were honest about their construction methods, while reflecting their local culture, particularly in terms of materials.
These ideas were developed into a house ‘Siemens style’ by architects Karl Janisch and Hans Hertlein in the early decades of the 20th century, creating functional factory buildings and power stations using German red brick and local slates.
The Bielkowo power station on the Radunia river (now in Poland) is a good example of this, with tall thin windows along the turbine hall and the control complex located in a solid cube topped by a pyramidal roof (see Fig 1).
Ordinary buildings in Ireland at the time described as plain, compact and rectangular
In contrast to such German vernacular forms, ordinary buildings in Ireland at the time were described by architectural critic Manning Robertson in 1925 as plain, compact and rectangular, with low pitched slate roofs, usually rendered with concrete or ‘dashed’ stone walls. Most architect-built projects continued to use historicist styles, particularly the Neo-Celtic, with discussion of German and French modernist ideas mostly relegated to articles in ‘The Irish Builder and Engineer’.
An early technical illustration by Siemens architect Wilhelm Dohme of ‘an Irish hydro-electric power station’ shows a severely geometric design in red brick, with slit-like windows separated by moulded vanes (see Fig 2).
The two-storey control complex on the bank of the river is split in half by an archway which echoes the forms of the aqueduct-like shiplift behind the power house. This red brick scheme was swiftly abandoned once Siemens staff arrived in Ireland and observed the context of the new station, with the decision made to clad the steel-framed building in concrete, which was then sand-dashed.
Conscious effort on Siemens’ part to link the station with its local culture and context
The whole complex roofed in local Killaloe slate, as part of a conscious effort on Siemens’ part to link the station with its local culture and context.
A Siemens technical drawing from late 1924 shows the original plan for the power station with six turbines, based on the work of John Chaloner Smith and Thomas McLaughlin, rather than the three which were actually constructed in the 1920s based on Siemens’ own readings from the River Shannon (see Fig 3).
A close reading of this drawing shows a similar design for the shiplift, with the turbine hall lit by 12 tall windows, which have lost their slit-like aspect. The switch houses form a rather messy conglomeration of buildings on either side of one of two narrow gauge rail lines, a layout that was later consolidated.
The heavily coded visual language of the technical drawing uses sections, heights, distances, and subtle hand-colouring to communicate the details of the initial design to a professional audience in a very different manner to the technical illustration, working out a certain level of detail for the proposed station.
The drawing also mixes German and English, with most of the labelling in English, giving a good indication that this drawing was intended for Shannon Power Development to read, rather than a German audience.
Gaspard Monge’s technique of descriptive geometry
Technical drawing practice in both Germany and Ireland shared a set of drawing tools and techniques based on Gaspard Monge’s technique of descriptive geometry, carried out on the drawing board with T-squares, pencils, pens and ink washes.
However, Irish practice was heavily based on the British system, which emphasised values of craft-based practicality, flexibility and self-regulation of project teams, which differed from German practice, which heavily emphasised design by drawing, with each change and step carefully documented and incorporated into revised technical drawings.
This difference in cultures of working practice can be seen in the little-known controversy about the roofs that erupted during the building of the Shannon Scheme. This controversy did not reach the newspapers, but was played out between Frank Sharman Rishworth of Shannon Power Development, backed by the Department of Trade and Industry, and the engineers and architects of Siemens Schuckertwerke, backed up by Siemens Head Office in Berlin and their steel contractors Louis Eilers, also in Berlin.
First issue with roof of power station building arose in November 1926
The first issue with the roof of the power station building arose in November 1926, with Rishworth querying Siemens about the style of the finished buildings. Rishworth’s preference was for a Scandinavian Romantic ‘castle’ style, and Siemens produced a series of drawings showing various options, which Rishworth rejected and kicked off a negotiation about reducing the angle of the building roofs from the initial 45 degrees.
This negotiation also includes several refinements to the layout of the control building, including the pyramidal glass roof over the control room, one version of which was described as an ‘encsclule’ by Gordon Campbell, secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry. Each stage of the discussion was carefully documented by Siemens in a successive series of drawings throughout 1927 and early 1928, when a flurry of letters showed Siemens in Limerick expressing concern about Rishworth verbally agreeing changes to the roof angle.
Part of their objection was the verbal nature of the agreement
Part of their objection was the verbal nature of the agreement, not documented by updated drawings, as well as the radical nature of the change to entirely flat roofs on the entire complex. The decision to radically change the profile of the buildings seems to have stemmed from Rishworth’s concern about rapidly mounting costs, estimating that the change could save approximately 10 per cent of the budget, already far over the original estimates.
However, the nature of the German design process meant that Eilers’ production schedule, based on earlier drawings supplied from Siemens, was so far advanced that several of the steel frames for the power house had already been constructed, with three actually on site waiting for erection.
It appears that the production of a new roof frame suitable for supporting a flat roof (particularly one which could be walked on) would have set back the project by a minimum of a further six weeks, which was deemed financially unacceptable and the roof of the power station was returned to a sloped design in August 1928.
‘Resent an engineer putting forward an alternative proposal’
The intake buildings and weir were not as far advanced, so their roofs were flattened, despite protests from Siemens about the overall negative effect of mixed roof styles on the project. Rishworth didn’t agree, pointing out that the intake building would not be visible from the tail race, behind the power house itself, which is indeed the case (see Figs 4 and 5).
The level of personal feeling surrounding this controversy is evident in a later letter from Rishworth to a government minister, where he states that “I do not claim to be an architect and am prepared to give way to their views, but in this case I cannot help feeling that they rather resent an engineer putting forward an alternative proposal”.
Given the similarity in working method between civil engineers and architects, however, it is likely that it was the method by which Rishworth’s alternative was proposed that was resented by Siemens, rather than an objection to his professional views on building design, particularly as Dohme viewed construction plans as equal in importance to the legal documents.
Rishworth’s engineering training and experience had both taken place in the British Empire, in an engineering culture that did not rely on such a detailed level of drawings as Germany, which would have allowed for a greater level of off-drawing negotiation and a less reverential attitude to the drawings themselves.
Importance of technical drawings as a visual way of negotiating form
The importance of technical drawings as a visual way of negotiating form is demonstrated by the use of such drawings to negotiate the construction of the Shannon Scheme. This is especially notable for the way in which it exposed the differences in engineering cultures between Germany and post-colonial Ireland, where the greater freedom given to builders to work out the finer details of construction was based on a less reverent approach to technical drawings.
It also exposed a set of differing attitudes about who controlled the aesthetics and cultural meaning of a building, particularly in relation to the project finances. The negotiation of the Shannon Scheme construction exposed the changing attitudes to the meaning of industrial buildings in the early 20th century, along with the thorny problem of how to make such a building reflect its surroundings as well as honestly express its purpose.
Powering the Nation – Images of the Shannon Scheme and Electricity in Ireland by Sorcha O’Brien is published by Irish Academic Press. Dr O’Brien is a senior lecturer in design history and theory at Kingston University, London, where she is currently an AHRC Leadership Fellow, working on a project on rural electrification in Ireland and its effects on women and the home. More information about the ESB Archive and the Siemens Historical Institute can be found at their websites.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2018/05/01/powering-nation-part-2-building-shannon-scheme-technical-drawings/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/a-ardna1.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/a-ardna1-300x300.jpgElecESB,hydro,water